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Boy Scouts, Dump Your 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Policy (Part 1): A History of Racial Segregation

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As an Eagle Scout, a member of the Order of the Arrow and a recipient of the God and Country Award, I remain disappointed by the continued failure of leadership by the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). On July 17, 2012, after a two-year review, it announced its intention to retain the Boy Scouts' equivalent of the military's now-repealed "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy. I expected much more from an organization that, for me and many other men from my baby boomer generation, was instrumental in teaching fundamental values of honesty and integrity. The leadership skills I learned and honed in the Boy Scouts served me well at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a Marine officer. Did these board members share the same lessons I learned in the Boy Scouts?

With the repeal of DADT in 2010, I anticipated that the BSA would reconsider its exclusion of openly gay members and leaders. Even though opponents of DADT repeal had predicted that this change in military personnel policy would adversely affect military readiness, unit morale and discipline, it has proved to be a non-event. If a Marine can be honest about his sexual orientation, why can't a Boy Scout?

On Jan. 28, 2013, I was encouraged when the Boy Scouts floated a very surprising trial balloon, announcing that in early February, the National Executive Board would consider abandoning its DADT policy, but with a caveat: They would pass the buck to local troops, giving them the right to determine if they would allow openly gay members and leaders. In light of the current policy, this proposal was arguably a step in the right direction, but in reality it was a halfway measure reminiscent of the approach that the Boy Scouts had used in the past, when it confronted membership of African Americans and other people of color.

Even though William D. Boyce, the Boy Scouts of America's founder, had established an inclusive policy by which scouting would be "open to all boys," at the National Executive Board's first meeting in November 1910, the organization passed a resolution that modified this founding principle. It permitted local troops to follow the same policies regarding race that was used in local school systems. Sound familiar?

This non-policy invariably led to segregated troops in most of the South and other areas of the country that resisted racial equality. Even after the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregated troops continued in many parts of the country. It was not until 1974, when the NAACP brought suit against the Boy Scouts because of the exclusion of African-American leaders in troops sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the BSA addressed the issue of racial discrimination. As part of the settlement of that case, the Chief Executive of the Boy Scouts sent a letter to the judge stating that the Boy Scouts did not discriminate. Nevertheless, to date, the National Executive Board has still never passed a national racial nondiscrimination policy for the Boy Scouts of America.

It is in the context of this history that the BSA continues to rail against "the three Gs": girls, gays and the godless. Not surprisingly, many of the same groups that practiced racial discrimination for almost 70 years are the ones that are most opposed to gay members and leaders today. Some of the same arguments used to keep the Boy Scouts segregated are being used today to prevent a change in this outdated, exclusionary policy. Those arguments failed the test of time because they were invalid from their inception. The BSA should learn from its sad history and recognize that such prejudice has no place in today's America. This time the National Executive Board should ask itself if exclusion should be a principle taught to our nation's future leaders.

To be continued...